Wednesday, January 23, 2002 202-822-8444; email@example.com
FACES ENORMOUS LEGAL, ECONOMIC AND SAFETY HURDLES
WashingtonTodays decision by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to utilize all but a few tons of the surplus plutonium recovered from dismantled nuclear warheads as fuel in U.S. nuclear power plants runs headlong into a minefield of legal and economic hurdles, as well as posing safety and security risks, according to Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), a private non-proliferation research and advocacy center.
The Bush Administration has summarily rejected the cheapest, safest and most secure option---the immobilization approach of mixing plutonium with highly radioactive waste for direct, final disposal, commented NCI Executive Director Tom Clements. Over eight years of DOE research documenting the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of immobilization has been thrown out the window in deference to pro-plutonium forces in the nuclear industry and bureaucracy. This decision was formulated behind closed doors and is a full reversal of earlier DOE policy on plutonium disposition, a policy developed through an open public process.
By canceling plans to operate an immobilization facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, DOEs decision will require surplus plutonium that cannot be made into fuel be sent to another site yet to be determined. This approach is legally inconsistent with DOEs January 2000 Record of Decision on plutonium disposition, and thus faces major hurdles under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In addition, plutonium shipment to an unnamed DOE site will cause public controversy in whichever state is chosen to receive the deadly material.
DOEs reversal also complicates efforts to meet deadlines specified in the September 2000 U.S.-Russian plutonium disposition agreement, Clements added. The resulting lengthy delays will require indefinite storage of plutonium at the Savannah River Site in a facility not designed for secure, long-term plutonium storage.
Federal budget legislation bars constructing and operating a plutonium MOX fuel fabrication plant in the United States if Russia does not also construct and operate a MOX plant. But Russias plutonium-disposition program is going nowhere, Clements pointed out. The Russian government cannot begin to shoulder the enormous costs involved, and despite years of fund-raising efforts by DOE, Western governments have proven unwilling to foot the bill. The United States cannot proceed with its MOX program until Russia does so, and we have no idea when or if that will ever be possible. Immobilization is the only practical way to dispose of weapons plutonium in Russia and the United States, but nuclear politics have put special interests ahead of security interests. Given the safety and security risks of processing, transporting, storing and using plutonium fuel in Russian reactors, this plan invites catastrophe.
Numerous hurdles remain to securing licenses for the various aspects of the program. Currently, an intervention by public-interest groups opposing the MOX plant construction license has been accepted for consideration by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the license amendment required for use of MOX in Duke Powers Catawba and McGuire reactors will also be challenged before the NRC.
DOEs latest plutonium-disposition cost figures are also highly questionable. DOE estimated last year that the U.S. MOX disposition program would cost $4.6 billion, with cost of the dual track program at $6.6 billion. Its latest cost estimate has mysteriously declined to $3.8 billion, despite a substantial increase in the amount of MOX fuel DOE plans to manufacture. Given that almost $700 million has already been sunk into the program, only $3 billion is left for remaining development, construction and operational costs, a figure which is pure fantasy, according to Clements. DOE must explain to Congress and the public why they anticipate that it will now cost about 20 percent less to manufacture about 25 percent more MOX, Clements insisted. After the Enron scandal, the American economy has already experienced enough stupid accounting tricks for one year.
More information on plutonium disposition and the risks of MOX fuel are available on Nuclear Control Institutes web site at http://www.nci.org/nci-wpu.htm